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Sniper Attacks Cause Some in Congress to Review Gun Laws - 2002-10-17

In the wake of a series of sniper attacks in the Washington area, some in the U.S. Congress are seeking to tighten gun control laws. In particular, lawmakers are considering establishing a national database that would record the unique features of every gun sold in order to help authorities track down criminals.

Under the so-called 'ballistics fingerprinting' proposal, gun makers would be required to submit to a national database the distinct markings that each gun leaves on a test-fired bullet casing. Police could then use the information to track a gun used in a crime.

Several lawmakers have introduced bills calling for the creation of such a database. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says he is open to having the Senate consider the idea. "I think it is time to look at whether or not that might be one of the tools law enforcement officials could use in crimes, such as the one we are experiencing in the Washington area."

Gun control advocates say a national database would be invaluable to authorities searching for the elusive Washington-area sniper. "The chances are much more likely that he would have been caught if we had the database," says Mike Beard, President of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

While the sniper case may have mobilized support for a ballistics fingerprinting database, opposition remains. Critics on Capitol Hill, mostly Republicans, argue the proposal goes against the spirit of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which outlines the right to bear arms.

Congressman Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, offered his view on NBC's 'Meet the Press' Sunday. "The idea of having the federal government knowing everything about me in terms of my right to bear arms, I do not feel very comfortable about it at all."

It is a position long advocated by the politically influential gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association. The NRA says it currently is withholding comment about ballistics fingerprinting until after the sniper is caught.

But another gun lobby group, the National Sports Shooting Foundation the largest firearms industry trade association is making its position clear. Spokesman Paul Erhardt expressed concerns about the accuracy of the technology. "There is a great deal of wear and tear that occurs on a firearm, the constant shooting, the high pressure, the heat, the use of solvents and brushes for cleaning, not to mention parts that get replaced," says Mr. Erhardt. "Once you do that, you change the ballistic image for that firearm, so what is in the database will not match up with what is currently in the firearm."

The Bush administration agrees. Spokesman Ari Fleischer also argues that a database cannot stop killers from using stolen guns. "When it comes to criminal behavior and people who use guns to commit murder, there is no amount of laws that will stop these people from committing these depraved crimes," he says. "The issue is their morality. The issue is their values. They have broken the law, they will break the law, new laws do not stop people like this."

Mr. Fleischer says he is not announcing support or opposition to a national database, but merely highlighting issues that should be considered. He noted that domestic policy aides met with officials of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency late Tuesday to ask them to explore whether a national database would be an effective crime-fighting tool.